Cornwall has been inspiring artists and poets for centuries. The painters Turner, Whistler and Sickert found inspiration for some of their most evocative, (and famous), work, while John Betjeman, Daphne du Maurier and Winston Graham immortalized Cornwall ‘s beauty in their well loved poetry and novels.
Its landscapes are full of sharp contrasts. They can enchant you with their warmth and light:
"The golden and unpeopled bays/The shadowy cliffs and sheep-worn ways/The white unpopulated surf/The thyme-and-mushroom scented surf/The slate-hung farms, the oil-lit chapels/Thin elms and lemon-coloured apples…" - John Betjeman , Delectable Duchy, 1974
But the very same landscapes can be equally stark and ominous. To the author D. H. Lawrence, Cornwall showed a harsher face:
"Cornwall is very primeval: great, black, jutting cliffs and rocks, like the original darkness, and a pale sea breaking in, like dawn. It is like the beginning of the world, wonderful…" - Letter 1916
This is part of the magic of Cornwall, a place where the powerful and ‘primeval’ can give way in a moment into the gentle and endearing. And vice versa.
History, real and imagined, is everywhere and full of the same kinds of contrasts. Along with the romance of Celtic myths and fairy stories there are tales of terrible monsters and strange beasts. There is a still (barely) living, ancient, Celtic language and there are stirring echoes of the days of smugglers, wreckers and pirates. (Wreckers and smugglers made use of the Cornish coastline for centuries. Contrary to the popular view, however, the Cornish wreckers rarely lured ships onto the rocks nor killed survivors but rather plundered wrecks when the opportunity arose.) Side by side with the romance and drama of Cornwall are the often desperate realities of the lives lived – and lost - by the fishermen and tin miners of the past.
Which Cornwall people find here, which one they choose to see, seems to depend on them. Like D.H. Lawrence, the poet Shelley saw its stern side:
“Cornwall and the storm-tossed isle/Where to the sun the rude sea rarely smiles/Unless in treacherous wrath ,”- Letter 1820
The author Virginia Woolf, however, who lived in St Ives from 1881 to 1895, never knew the Cornwall these writers described. She wrote of her childhood:
‘Probably nothing that we had as children was quite so important to us as our summer in Cornwall,’ ‘To have our own house, our own garden – to have that bay, that sea, and the Mount; Clodgy and Halestown bog, Carbis Bay, Lelant, Zennor, Trevail, the Gurnard’s Head: to hear the waves breaking that first night behind the yellow blind, to sail in the lugger; to dig in the sand; to scramble over the rocks…I could fill pages remembering one thing after another that made the summer at St Ives the best beginning to a life conceivable.’
And the best-selling author Mary Wesley once took her children on holiday to Cornwall - and never went home.
Very few people who visit Cornwall are undecided in how they feel about it. It seems to be a place to love deeply or else a place to inspire unease! Fortunately, for most it becomes a place to love, with all its contradictory landscapes, its sweetness and its darkness, its mystery and its harsh realities. But which one, of all these, is the real Cornwall?
They are all the real Cornwall and all powerful, all romantic in their own way and all well worth getting to know. As with so many artists and poets, which one you find here will depend on you. And this, too, is part of the magic of the place.